First rate: Defensive backs

Georgia Tech, Massachusetts and Temple are the only three teams on Notre Dame’s 2015 slate with their entire starting secondary returning intact.

The defensive backfields on Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule are an impressive array of proven talent with some of the nation’s most productive units returning. Texas, Temple, Pittsburgh, Navy and Georgia Tech boast pass defenses from the 2014 season that the typical observer of the college game may not know about.

No surprise that Clemson and USC rank near the top of the secondary chart, and while many wouldn’t naturally look to Notre Dame’s defensive backs among the nation’s best, the Irish cornerbacks should be as good as anybody’s on the slate while the starting safety tandem is primed to turn in a big 2015 after a couple years worth of growing pains.

Our First Rate approach to ranking secondaries isn’t kind to Stanford and Boston College, both of whom put forth quality performances in 2014, but simply lost too much firepower to rank them higher than the bottom of the barrel among Notre Dame and its 12 opponents. That being said, both programs are quite capable of developing effective, productive secondaries this season with a proven track record of defensive effectiveness.

13) Stanford (CB-Ronnie Harris)
If Wake Forest (see below) lost the best cornerback tandem among teams on Notre Dame’s 2015 slate, Stanford lost the most talented safety-cornerback duo in SS Jordan Richards and CB Alex Carter, who were selected in the second and third rounds of the NFL draft by New England and Detroit respectively. In fact, they lost the most secondary talent overall. Veteran CB Wayne Lyons decided to use his fifth year at Michigan. The talent drain continued when veteran safety Zach Hoffpauir – a 22nd-round draft choice of the Arizona Diamondbacks – chose baseball over his final year of eligibility in football. That leaves CB Harris (0 interceptions, 0 PBUs) as the default leader of the unit with unproven CB Terrence Alexander and S Kodi Whitfield entering the starting lineup.

12) Boston College (CB-Justin Simmons)
The Eagles’ secondary – unsettled by injuries -- made just five interceptions in ’14, and now CB Simmons (76 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 PBUs) is the only returning starter with a junior (CB John Johnson) and two sophomores (SS Cam Seward and FS Christian Lezzer) pegged for starting roles. Simmons began the ’14 season at FS before moving to CB. The Eagles will be counting on a veteran DL to help the mostly-untested secondary on the back end.

11) Massachusetts (S-Joe Colton, CB-Randall Jette, S-Khary Bailey-Smith, CB-Trey Dudley-Giles)
The entire starting secondary from ’14 returns, but it was a unit riddled by MAC passing games that weren’t known for their strong quarterback play. Opponents passed for 255.8 yards per game and 26 TDs. CB Jette (4 interceptions, 14 PBUs) was a second-team all-MAC selection. S Bailey-Smith (3 interceptions) and CB Dudley-Giles (2 interceptions) had their moments. This secondary is better than the numbers, largely due to the fact the Minutemen generated just 15 sacks in ’14.

10) Wake Forest (S-Ryan Janvion)
No team on the Irish schedule lost more pure talent and productivity at cornerback than the Demon Deacons, who had CB Kevin Johnson (1 interceptions, 6 PBUs) drafted with the No. 16 overall pick by Houston while also losing productive CB Merrill Noel (3 interceptions, 3 PBUs) from a pass defense that ranked 12th nationally in yards allowed and tied for sixth in TD passes surrendered (12). Junior SS Janvion (115 tackles, 6 PBUs, 7 tackles for loss) is a solid building blocker around which to form the new secondary. The Deacs are high on junior CB Brad Watson moving into Johnson’s spot, but red-shirt freshman CB Josh Okonye is untested. Junior FS Thomas Brown (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) provides the size that Janvion (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) is lacking.

9) Pittsburgh (CB-Lafayette Pitts, S-Reggie Mitchell)
The Panthers offered productivity (198.9 yards passing per game, 24th nationally) and some flaws (13.0 yards per reception, 102nd nationally) in ’14. Now they move forward without opportunistic S Ray Vinopal, who had a pair of picks vs. the Irish in ’13. CB Pitts (2 interceptions, 6 PBUs) is the veteran of the crew who HC Pat Narduzzi asked to shed some pounds in the spring to improve his stamina. Versatile S Mitchell (62 tackles, 7 PBUs) has a CB skill set. CB Avonte Maddox and S Pat Amara move into the starting lineup as sophomores.

8) Virginia (S-Quin Blanding, CB-Maurice Canady, CB-Tim Harris)
Three starters return, led by FS Blanding, who lived up to Scout’s No. 15 overall rating out of the prep ranks. Blanding earned ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year with his 122 tackles, three interceptions, and six passes broken up. The rest of the unit, however, is suspect after the Cavaliers finished 12th in the ACC in pass defense, allowing 232.5 yards per game. Look for CB Demetrious Nicholson – who missed most of the last two seasons with a chronic toe injury – to upgrade the suspect ’14 seasons of CBs Canady (3 interceptions, 12 PBUs) and Harris.

7) Navy (CB-Quincy Adams, CB-Brendon Clements, S-Kwazel Bertrand)
This may be one of Navy’s best secondaries, even with the loss of veterans Parrish Gaines and George Jamison (both with 3 interceptions). The Midshipmen allowed just 10.8 yards per completion in ’14 (17th nationally), and that was with the 78-yard TD by Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise. Not much returning by way of takeaways with CB Adams (9 PBUs) and SS Bertrand snagging just one interception apiece last year. But CB Clements has 20 straight starts and a proven track record in run support. Adams, Clements and Bertrand combined for 139 solo tackles in ’14. This group can play against quality competition.

6) Temple (CB-Sean Chandler, CB-Tavon Young, S-Alex Wells, S-Will Hayes)
The best CB unit in the American Athletic Conference belongs to the Owls with Chandler (69 tackles, 1 interception, 8 PBUs) and Young (4 interceptions, 2 TDs, 9 PBUs) leading the way. Touted freshman Kareem Ali is waiting in the wings. Safeties Hayes and Wells (51 tackles, 5 PBUs in 9 games) are seniors, as is Boye Aromire (34 tackles, 3 fumbles forced). This will be the most underrated secondary on Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule.

5) Clemson (CB-Mackensie Alexander, S-Jayron Kearse)
The nation’s No. 2 pass defense in ’14 no longer has CB Garry Peters (1 interception, 12 PBUs) or S Robert Smith (50 solo tackles). But Alexander (6 PBUs as freshman) may be on a similar arc as Notre Dame’s KeiVarae Russell after his rookie season, and Kearse (60 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, 5 PBUs) is a long (6-foot-4), rangy free safety. Junior CB Cordrea Tankersley and junior S Jadar Johnson move into the starting lineup.

4) Texas (S-Dylan Haines, CB-Duke Thomas, S-Jason Hall)
In a conference in which most passing games have evolved to elite level, the Longhorns allowed just 184.2 yards per game (11th nationally) and 9.7 yards per completion (2nd nationally). Gone are NFL draft selections Mykkele Thompson (safety) and Quandre Diggs (cornerback). But CB Thomas (50 tackles, 3 interceptions, 10 PBUs), SS Haines (4 interceptions, 6 PBUs), a former walk-on, and FS Hall are top-notch. The Longhorns work predominately out of a five-man secondary with highly-touted freshman John Bonney the projected nickel back.

3) USC (CB-Kevon Seymour, CB-Adoree’ Jackson)
With Su’a Cravens at safety and the return of long-time USC safety/former Irish recruit Leon McQuay, this would be the top defensive backs crew on this list. But it appears Cravens is an LB to stay while Jackson likely will see additional time at WR. Of course, the Trojans have freshman CB standout Iman Marshall to fill the gap, and if there’s such a thing as a college-ready CB right out of the chute, it’s Marshall. Seymour (1 interception, 13 PBUs) developed into a real ball hawk as a sophomore. Jackson enters ’15 still looking for his first career interception. McQuay had a pair of picks in ’14.

2) Notre Dame (CB-Cole Luke, S-Elijah Shumate, S-Max Redfield)
The nation doesn’t realize it, but the Irish are loaded in the secondary with the development of Shumate and Redfield in ’14 serving as the key to this ranking heading into ’15. Luke played about as well as a first-time starting sophomore could be expected last year, finishing with a co-team-leading four interceptions to go with 15 passes defensed and 11 passes broken up. Cody Riggs was a stabilizing force in the absence of KeiVarae Russell until Luke got up to speed, and now Russell is back and motivated to prove he’s first-round draft material. Nickel Matthias Farley (4 interceptions) may be the most underrated player on the Notre Dame team. The depth at safety is thin, but CB Nick Watson is on the cusp.

1) Georgia Tech (CB-D.J. White, CB-Chris Milton, S-Demond Smith, S-Jamal Golden)
The entire starting secondary on a defense that nabbed 18 interceptions – five of which were returned for touchdowns – is the main feature of Georgia Tech’s stop unit that will look to improve its middle-of-the-road major stat rankings. Every starter on the last rung is a senior, including fifth-year SS Smith (1 interception, 73 tackles, 54 solo), who is considered the leader of the quartet. White (66 tackles, 4 interceptions, 8 PBUs, 1 TD) is one of the top CBs in the ACC. S Golden (61 tackles, 4 interceptions, 3 fumbles forced, 1 TD) is a ball hawk in his own right while CB Milton came up with a couple of picks. The Yellow Jackets also have veterans in reserve roles.

Here is the running tally:

1. USC (18--QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 3rd, OL 1st, DL 5th, LB 2nd, DB 3rd)
2. Notre Dame (23 -- QB 7th, RB 2nd, WR 2nd, OL 3rd, DL 6th, LB 1st, DB 2nd)
3. Clemson (30 -- QB 4th, RB 6th, WR 1st, OL 5th, DL 2nd, LB 7th, DB 5th)
4. Stanford (44 -- QB 5th, RB 4th, WR 6th, OL 2nd, DL 11th, LB 3rd, DB 13th)
5t. Georgia Tech (45 -- QB 2nd, RB 8th, WR 13th, OL 4th, DL 7th, LB 10th, DB 1st)
5t. Pittsburgh (45 -- QB 6th, RB 1st, WR 5th, OL 7th, DL 8th, LB 9th, DB 9th)
7. Texas (52 -- QB 10th, RB 7th, WR 8th, OL 8th, DL 3rd, LB 12th, DB 4th)
8. Boston College (58 -- QB 13th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 11th, DL 1st, LB 6th, DB 12th)
9. 9t. Virginia (61 -- QB 12th, RB 10th, WR 7th, OL 9th, DL 4th, LB 11th), DB 8th)
9t. UMass (61 -- QB 8th, RB 11th, WR 4th, OL 6th, DL 13th, LB 8th, DB 11th)
11. Navy (66 -- QB 3rd, RB 9th, WR 12th, OL 10th, DL 12th, LB 13th, DB 7th)
12. Wake Forest 67 -- QB 9th, RB 13th, WR 9th, OL 13th, 9th, LB 4th, DB 10th)
13. Temple (67 -- QB 11th, RB 12th, WR 11th, OL 12th, DL 10th, LB 5th, DB 6th)

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